There are 23 songs on this playlist and there easily could have been 57, so I’m feeling rather accomplished for separating the wheat from the chaff.
Every year I make a playlist of songs that have attached to me over the previous 365 days. Last year I kept it to songs that came out in that year, but this year I really don’t have any rules. These are songs that came to me over 2015, or reemerged at a specific moment and solidified a memory. Some of them were released this year, some of them weren’t; all of them matter to me. I’d say that this year’s common denominator is voice. Yup – I have to go with Guru on this one; this year: it’s mostly tha voice.
Enough About Hard Times, Caitlin Canty
Caitlin Canty is my favorite discovery of the year. I love this woman’s alto. I love how the songs drip with grit and history and loss and promise. Reckless Skyline is loaded with tunes that solidify me in time and prop me up – I could have filled this entire playlist with them. Other key tracks on this album are Wore Your Ring, My Love for You Will Not Fade, I Never, and Get Up.
Frankly, this year started hard and hollow with a phone call. I’d just pulled onto the freeway, merged into traffic, and ensured I wasn’t going to be decimated by the swerving 18-wheeler in the lane next to me when the phone broke through the stereo. You don’t ignore calls from your mother, and my car is equipped with Bluetooth, so I answered.
The news was not good. My brother returned home from work that day to find that his long-term girlfriend – essentially his wife – died sometime during the day, in their bed. It was horrible. Everything was horrible. I made immediate plans to drive to Utah by myself and stay with him for as long as I could. And I did.
I decided to put my iPod on shuffle and just drive – some silly idea of music leading me there and back. It didn’t last long; the only thing I really wanted to listen to was Caitlin Canty. I probably played this song in particular about seventy six times on that drive, and even more in the months afterwards.
The entire album kept me company in that shitty, horrible, cold and bitter window, but this song meant more. I was struggling with a lot of choices, and it was easy to complain or blame and not solve any of the problems. I gave into that easiness – I was tired and I was sad all the time and I couldn’t see beyond that mindset. This song got me to stop feeling sorry for myself. The refrain “Enough about hard times / you fell on your own knife / enough about leaving / unless you’re gonna go” hit me hard, and I realized I needed to make some hard choices that were going to cause big changes, and I needed to make them soon. I’d brought myself to this point – enough with the complaining, and the giving in: it was time – to use a cliché – to put up or shut up. So I did. And I played this album relentlessly all year long.
Wolves, Down Like Silver
Being obsessed with all things Caitlin Canty meant finding out about this side project with Peter Bradley Adams. This song is dark and haunting and choral; coming out of the trip to Utah, the funeral, the grief, the helplessness, the weak resolve, and the upheaval of the weeks that followed, this song fit perfectly with my mood. I love the spare piano and the way the strings creep in at the end. The repetition of the last line “daylight is waiting for you” as the song winds down always makes me feel like maybe everything isn’t shit even when you think it is, because music exists. I dunno. February started in the most mercurial way.
Something New, Summer Cannibals
Thank you, NPR.
I was introduced to Summer Cannibals when I came across a post in my newsfeed from NPR Music for this video.
That video was everything to me. I loved the Hamm’s in the opening shot when Jessica Boudreaux has the bb gun, her kickass haircut, and the music. The lyrics. The music. It was a little bit Runaways, a little bit pouty… I was addicted. I probably nearly caused a few accidents since kept playing the video while driving to and from work, since it was the only way I could listen to the song. When the album finally came out in March, I’d worn that song out – and I still wanted more. The album is great, but this song – and the video – were instant classics for me.
I also ❤ ❤ ❤ this version.
Pedestrian at Best, Courtney Barnett
Fresh on the heels of Summer Cannibals came Courtney Barnett.
If you don’t know Courtney Barnett, you haven’t been paying attention to music this year. And if you can’t figure out why this song (and the entire album, and all that came before it) then I’m not sure we should be music friends.
Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996), Modest Mouse
And then Modest Mouse gave us Strangers to Ourselves and all was right with the world, because Modest Mouse.
The album is a mess, but individually the songs are terrific. It’s weird and it’s off-kilter, and I love it. The fourth track on the album, Pistol was initially my least favorite song. Something about it grew and grew on me until I heard it in the background of my day when it wasn’t even playing. It cycled through my head – the squirreliness, the intrusive “duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh” at the breaks, the ting-ting-ting of electricity… this song is sexy, despite disjointed lyrics. I don’t exactly know why I love it, but listening to it over and over while driving down 13 towards Berkeley in the gray March mornings felt pretty perfect.
Collectors, Springtime Carnivore
I was about to go out on the road for work so all of the anger that had been building didn’t matter as much. I spent a lot of nights making lists of things I wanted out of a new job; I debated going back to school and looked at online colleges, and also spent time preparing for the upcoming nearly month-long trip. Springtime Carnivore came over my headphones one night via a Spotify radio channel, and I was smitten with the bouncy energy of the song coupled with the melancholy lyrics. Then I came across a video of this kid dancing to it and absolutely fell in love. I spent the next weeks on plane after plane, and Collectors accompanied me on nearly every one. Greta Morgan’s voice makes me happy, and I was hunting all the happy I could find.
We Both Know, Reservations
I actually found Reservations on the very last day of 2014. I was compiling a list much like this and stumbled on the song Hewlitt Park. I liked the song, liked Jana Horn’s voice, and absent-mindedly added the 5-song EP to a Spotify library. My phone was recently upgraded to a whopping 64gb of memory, so I was going a little crazy with the “play offline” feature and toggled the album to be available even if I wasn’t connected to the rest of the world.
Lo and behold, my first flight to Canada was sans wi-fi. It wasn’t a short flight, and so I started digging around my playlists, listening to stuff I’d added but rarely revisited. This album was one of those playlists.
This song breaks my heart. I love the wistful, delicate layers of guitar from Paul Price. I love the lyrics – “Someone asked me about you / and I could not describe / the eternity around you” or “I just can’t seem to collect all the pieces / that fall through the floor when you leave me uneven” – that’s the painful, out-of-sorts truth of unrequited love, isn’t it?
Reservations has a new album out this year that’s pretty good, but this song and that EP will always remind me of the April I trekked back and forth to Canada, from plane to plane and hotel room to hotel room – and surreptitiously, when I was in the states, from interview to interview – knowing a big change was coming.
Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins), Father John Misty
I missed the memo when Josh Tillman released the video for this in December. One of my work friends asked if I’d heard the new Father John single. I hadn’t, but found this song and felt the exuberance, the wanting, the hopefulness, the tenderness – but also the typical oddball story I’ve come to expect from a Father John Misty song. The horns – THOSE HORNS. Some of the lyrics – I don’t know what chord the lines “I want to take you in the kitchen / lift up your wedding dress / someone was probably murdered in” strike with me but goddamn that’s hot. The song accompanied me as I was saying goodbye to a job where I’d spent five years, and the very Herb Alpert/Whipped Cream nature of those horns buoyed me on days when I wasn’t sure if I could float.
Done, Frazey Ford
Videos. This is also apparently the year of videos. Again, NPR suggested this to me, via my local public radio station. By this point in the year, I’d left my job in the east bay. I watched and promptly loved this video. I mean, the sass of this song. Frazey Ford’s voice! This was my early summer anthem, and danced to on many a BART train rides for the rest of the year.
A friend of mine said “a little too 90s coffee house for me” but I disagree. Lillith Fair, Frazey is decidedly not.
New Skin, Torres
The hip people of the world heard this song in November of 2014. I’m not hip, so I didn’t get around to it until July when it popped up in one of the music apps I use (I think it was Hype Machine). Meanwhile, Torres is pretty much tearing it up and absolutely flooding me with music. I love the crescendos in this song, and the upbeat but accusatory bass lines. I like the crashing drums, and the guitar fuzz, and the wail. The lyrics remind me of hymns, and Mackenzie Scott’s plaintive high notes really knock me out.
I far prefer the album version to the one that came out in November, in case you’re wondering.
Sing to Me, Walter Martin & Karen O
I’ve been terrified of driving over bridges forever.
I don’t know where it comes from, really. I mean, I have ideas. I have a lot of things I think I can blame – but truthfully, it’s probably the bridge itself, and the car, and me being in charge of it all.
But then I got a job in a place where I’d have to drive over a bridge every day. And I got over it. (Mostly. I still hate the Bay Bridge and by the time I get across it I’m breathing a little hard.) This song was a lullaby for mornings stuck in traffic, twilights stuck in transit, and all of the avenues and stop-and-go red lights in between.
Plus, Karen O.
Heavy metal drummer, Wilco
I hadn’t been to Chicago since I was nine or ten, or maybe eleven: one of those years when my legs were coltish and tanned and my hair looked like shiny wheat pennies stretched in a shimmery line. What I remembered about Chicago still spoke to me: lines and more lines, architecture that positively felt like home.
I walked around Chicago listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, because what else do you do when you’re a Wilco fan let loose in Chicago? You walk around in the heat, you sweat, and you listen to your very favorite Wilco song while trying to angle your camera in a way to replicate the cover of the album.
This was my first trip for my new job, and everything felt so very critical, and my phone was volatile but damn if I couldn’t listen to Wilco whenever I wanted, and at the side of Lake Michigan to boot.
I also sat and ate one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches of my life while I copied the lyrics onto an envelope for a card I was sending my brother. There’s just something about Wilco. Damnit.
Discover weekly strikes.
This song is summer and it’s heavy and it’s cheeky and it thumps and it makes me want to dance.
This song is lo-fi and low production but it’s spectacular. Do you like sixties girlie punk rock flare? Listen to this band.
The video and the final album version are a little different. Check the album version, but in keeping with the video theme, also enjoy below:
Detroit Baby is another great track from this album.
Tiger Phone Card, Dengue Fever
Another Spotify Discover Weekly playlist – in fact, this may have been the same week as Habibi. In any case, the slinking, winding lure of this melody is only the beginning. The brassy bang, the brash bass, the goddamn alarm of it all on a magic carpet gliding through some kind of aural vortex really put me under a spell. I love this song, and I love the way it makes me think of hot summer mornings and nights navigating the back streets of East Palo Alto looking for new shortcuts. I can’t believe this song came out in 2008 and I only found it this year.
PS – Can we just stop for a moment and admire Chhom Nimol’s vocal chops? Mmmmm, mm.
Come On and Move Me, Monarchs
This song is thunder and a little bit of Chrissy Hynde and a whole lot of rumble. I’ve been in gardens after midnight, and I’ve looked for answers in the people who stumble around at that time. It’s always bullshit, but this song captures the lightness of hope that comes with a lot of drinking and music and love and swapping stark snippets of history with people you love, or don’t. It leaves you ready to move, to swing, to shimmy – and this tune shimmies. Again, came to it quite late – this track is from 2009.
Here’s a lovely live version.
The Body Electric, Hurray For The Riff Raff
I love this. This song is brilliant That is all.
I found Ibeyi and didn’t quite know if I liked them, but this song rattled around for a long time and made an impression. By early September I was skipping other songs to find it, looking forward to it.
Thump, thump, thump, duh-duh-duh-duh. All of the ways this rattles and coos. All of the ways it lifts and soars. Any river, any time, if it means I get to listen to music like this.
Shake It Off, Ryan Adams
Confession: I only kind of like Taylor Swift.
But I love the fuck out of Ryan Adams, even as he’s being an asshole during his divorce from Mandy Moore. I mean: he’s got a great voice but he seems like a total shithead, which is why this cover of the Taylor Swift blockbuster thrills me so deeply, I think. It’s so unlike Adams, but he seems completely at home with the lyrics and the guitar work. I do appreciate the spare arrangement and the rock and roll flavor of this version. I want to wear a leather jacket and be really good at snapping my fingers – plus I really love the tempo on this version of the song.
I played it for my brother in October when he came for his birthday. We drove up 1 and as I nearly panicked from the ridiculous drops at the side of the highway, he leaned into this cover album like nothing else. It was so good to see him in the sunshine with music moving him – this song in particular brought a smile to his face and it made me less weary just seeing it.
Laborman, Nathaniel Rateliff
Toronto, I love you. I can’t help it: you’re kind of scruffy and delicate of skin, but you’re also tough and cold and brisk and all your brick buildings stand so tall. Every time I go to Toronto I fall in love a little bit more – and it was because of a trip to Toronto that I found Nathaniel Rateliff. His current band was playing while I was going to be there during the tail end of November – I started listening to him because of that. This song and this album went on repeat for the rest of the year. I love the clamor and loose hallelujah of the verse and chorus here – forgiveness is never something you come to – or from – easily. The clip of the guitar during the verse is great. I also love his voice – go figure, right – and I sort of want to live inside of it for awhile just to feel it’s warmth and depth. The album this song is from is quite good, but I also highly recommend his newest endeavor.
Ghosts, Laura Marling
Laura Marling is one of those artists I wish I’d known about since she was singing in small venues, birdlike and still prey, with a voice that skips and scampers across the soporific meadow of shoegaze to break you out of reverie. I love her voice – mischief and truth and repetition and slide – it’s all there. This song is old, old, old.
Her newest album out this year is stunning, but this song trickles across me like rain on a window in the slowest traffic. This song scrapes against the edge of conversations that may or may not be a good idea. As the days shortened and the nights lengthened, I knew I had Laura Marling to keep me company.
Defense, Sarah Jaffe
If this is the year of the voice and the video, Sarah Jaffe has it down. You want sultry? You want slink? You want the skunky, steamy thwap of disdain and retort? This song has it pinned. I have no idea how I found Sarah Jaffe. I’m not exactly thrilled by anything else I’ve heard, but this song would pull me from a chair to the dancefloor without a second thought.
WTF (Where They From), Missy Elliot feat. Pharrell Williams
Missy. Fucking. Elliot.
Shanghai Cigarettes, Caitlin Rose
I like that I start and end this list with a Caitlin/Caitlyn. I like that this song is another one of those I’ve come to late, and that it found me through Spotify Discover Weekly, and that when I tweeted it was my new everything Caitlin Rose favorite the tweet. Yeah. I was stoked. But really, the playful lilt of this song gobbles up any animosity I’m feeling over any situations that tremor, and make me realize I can’t run or hide from the hole in my heart, or from the last moment of memory as it deteriorates into ash.
The rhythm guitar in this song reminds me of the Vaselines, and Rose’s voice feels like blue jeans and warm hugs. This song is the perfect conclusion to this year: it’s over, but it will continue to resound and replay for awhile. Hopefully it will someday be right, and I’ll let go – but if I don’t, I’ll have Shanghai Cigarettes to sing along with.
That’s my year in songs: good or bad, old or new, music touched me again and I’m grateful. This was a hard year for people I love. It was a hard year for me. It was a year full of promise and change. I could go on and the alliteration would be ridiculous, superfluous, over the top. Brevity is not my strong suit, but neither is amplification. Here’s a link to the playlist in full (again). Works if you’re all up in that Spotify business.